Anxious thoughts…

Everyone has anxiety at times. What is it, exactly? According to the American Psychological Association: “Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It is fundamentally a fear response, usually milder than full blown panic but with essentially the same physical response – a response to a perceived threat, even if the threat is something as innocuous as getting up for work in the morning. Anxiety can take many forms: there are phobias, OCD, and ‘free floating anxiety’, that frustrating feeling that something is wrong, but it’s not connected to anything in particular.

The body will act up, seemingly without our permission, and then usually thoughts jump in – worries, questions, all the ‘what if’s’. Anxious thoughts are usually about the future, which is why techniques that use meditation, mindfulness and grounding are generally suggested; the idea is to bring the person into the present, in order to feel that everything is ok right at this moment.

Anxiety and depression very often go together. Some people become so anxious that they feel hopeless and fall into a depression. Others are depressed, then the thought (fear) of taking action causes anxiety to flare up. Of course, both conditions can be present simultaneously. In my view, one of the things they have in common is a sense of powerlessness; a person can become frozen and be uncertain of what to do because they don’t know how to prepare for every eventuality. In other words, they want to have control over how things turn out. But the reality is no one know ahead of time what will happen.

What can be done? Just like every issue involving mental health there is no one size fits all solution. Each person needs to find what works for them, and it may involve different strategies at different times, or more than one. Medication is an option. Making efforts to change thinking is another method, and the techniques I outline here can be used for anxious thoughts also (with practice). The first step to is accept the thought, be OK with it. Other times when anxious it’s good to get moving — walk, swim, do yoga, get on an exercise bike …. still other times it’s good to sit still, meditate, rest, relax, and/or distract yourself from the thoughts. It’s good to have people to talk to, just to ‘vent’ or talk out an issue with someone and examine it logically. Writing can be very helpful; journaling, making lists and prioritizing, or even making a list of pros and cons about a subject.

Obviously, many of the above ideas can work in conjunction with therapy, either to have a nonjudgmental ear, someone to be accountable to, or to learn different coping techniques. What becomes clear as one tries to navigate all the stressors in life is that knowing yourself well can make all the difference. What works for me isn’t necessarily going to be helpful to you. My values and priorities may not be the same as yours. Sorting these things out is a lifetime job for most of us!

One thing I find useful is to step back and look at the big picture. It’s not always possible but can be extremely freeing to realize that this thing I’m so worried about is not really that important in the big scheme of things. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, I’m just one person on this little dot in a big universe, trying to do my best.

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Inside Depression

Depression is not sadness. It can encompass this feeling and others, but in my opinion it is more a numbing, a stuffing of unexpressed, unprocessed feelings. It is being stuck and going around and round the same old thoughts and feelings without ceasing. It is a darkness and a grey curtain between you and the rest of humanity, it isolates and makes you feel alone, even when with loved ones.

What I am writing is only my opinion, from my own and others’ experience with this ‘mood disorder’. There are no shortages of definitions for depression; most of them have to do with symptoms — sleep issues, appetite, tiredness, feelings of hopelessness and despair, to name a few. But to try to define what it feels like, this is where it gets difficult. I think getting better, not necessarily ‘well’ or ‘cured’ – since there is no real consensus on what causes depression –  I think it’s a process involving some of the old psychoanalytic methods. To make the unconscious conscious, or bring forth what is in darkness into the light. To look at the shadow parts of oneself, as Carl Jung would say. In recovery parlance the phrase would be along the lines of “uncover, express, and get rid of”.

This is why in therapy you ‘dig’ and try to get to what’s behind a behavior, thought or surface feeling. This is why there is no simple fix, because every person is unique and whatever is hidden, be it from the past or present (and it is often from the past, sometimes unremembered) can be hard to find. If you are depressed it’s unlikely that it is any one thing. There could have been even mild childhood abuse or neglect; on top of that perhaps grief or trauma – a car accident, a rejection by a friend, a divorce – whatever you experience as overwhelming. Any kind of major, or even minor change, or losses piled on top of one another, onto a vulnerable person can cause or contribute to depression. Yes, there are likely some genetics involved, but my view is they are more in the nature of a predisposition and not a direct cause.

Another thing that I think contributes to depression is lack of connection – not just to other human beings but also to nature and the natural world. This is why having pets can be so therapeutic, and this is why when I take a walk in a nature center my mood is lifted. Our society and culture add to a feeling of disconnection. We feel a lack of real community, understanding, and belonging. This is why support groups can work so well;  people who are connected with others who have the same issues – such AA or other 12 step groups – don’t feel so alone.

A word about anxiety, the ‘disorder’ that often goes hand in hand with depression: whereas depression often involves issues from the past, anxiety usually involves worry about the future. Worry about the future often comes from judgements formed out of past experiences, and also involves the same circular thinking that depression does.

I have heard it said that depression is anger turned inward. I think there may be anger, but there is also shame, sadness, grief, and many other feelings directed inward.  They need to come out – safely, securely, and with great respect.

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Tell Me A Story

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People need to be heard, and to have their feelings validated. Everyone has a story – how they grew up, what happened to them, and how it affected them. Not everyone has had a tragic past or experienced trauma, but the most important thing is how one experiences and feels about what has happened in their lives. A seemingly small thing, like a parent being critical, may not have much effect  on one person, but could be felt as significant, even traumatic, to another.

If stories are not told, if feelings are not understood, experienced, and released, they become stored in our bodies.  I realize there is no way to prove this, but the evidence is there:  if you are anxious, you might get a headache, or feel sweaty or nauseous.  If you are sad, you likely will feel heavy and tired; if joyful, the opposite. Frightened, the heart beats faster — and so on. Many believe unprocessed feelings can cause illness.

I don’t know why our culture seems to facilitate denying, minimizing, or ‘stuffing’ emotions. We don’t want to feel our pain, yet the way to heal the hurt is to feel it.  To feel it is to release it, and while this can be a solitary or even spiritual thing, it is sometimes  beneficial to share with someone else. There’s a saying that a feeling shared is halved, or something like that.

For myself, I have found that writing is very helpful in sorting out and expressing feelings, especially when I was younger and had a hard time trusting others.  Now I find that I talk more and write less, because I have people in my life who understand and listen.

Sorting out emotions, especially when it comes to relationships, is not always easy.  One often has to be okay with contradictions and uncertainty; it’s normal to have more than one feeling about a person or situation, or to have layers of emotion. It’s important – and difficult – to be able to sit with the feelings, to just experience them and not get caught up in analyzing what it all means. There is information there, but words can complicate matters if applied too concretely.  I think of feelings like waves of the ocean, always changing and flowing.  If not allowed to flow, they will become a stagnant pond.

When feelings are allowed to felt and released – especially old, stored up pain – there is more room to let in other people, to let in acceptance, joy, exploration, understanding, and empathy. And I tell people it doesn’t matter if it’s something that “shouldn’t” bother you.  You feel the way you feel – give yourself permission!

We are all important. We all have our stories, and none of them are insignificant.  When I go to nursing homes to see clients, most of them are too sick or tired or medicated to talk much. But there’s always those few who, week after week, pour out the story of their lives to me, and what a privilege that is.

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In future blogs, I hope to explore and discuss various different emotions in more detail.  

 

 

 

 

The Myth of Security

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Bearing in mind recent events surrounding tropical storm Harvey, and another hurricane on the way, this not meant to be insensitive.  I am distressed when I see and hear about hardship — I know what it’s like to have your life turned suddenly upside down.

I’ve been collecting poems and quotations since high school, and in recent years have combined some with my own photos (this one is Lake Michigan on a frigid winter day).  The above quote by Helen Keller is one of my favorites, and it means more because she saw so clearly, despite being blind and deaf.  Expecting to have security in life is unrealistic; it is one reason many people seek therapy.  They come because of a divorce, or job loss, or the death of a loved one. They come because there was an accident, an illness, a past trauma, or a drug and/or alcohol addiction.

The common thread is this: “I didn’t expect my life to turn out his way”.

No one thinks tragedy or misfortune is going to befall them, unless, perhaps, they have already experienced such things. Then they are in a struggle to accept what is — versus wishing it were different.

It’s human nature to shut down and try to ‘avoid danger’, but life happens. While precautions can be taken, there is no way to plan for every possible thing that can go wrong.  People who try to do so can be crippled with anxiety.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to learn this lesson, and had to keep my “face toward change” when I wanted to turn away.  Have I always treated life like a daring adventure?  Not usually. It was easier to face and even welcome change when I was younger, but then,  I was looking for something outside of me to make me feel safe.  Now I know that security comes from the inside, and this is something I try to help others move toward.  It may not be a ‘daring adventure’ but it is a journey, and a rewarding one.

 

 

 

 

What’s emotion got to do with it?

Emotions have a lot to do with a lot, actually.  But not just emotions; we humans are also uniquely capable of reasoning, of logical thought.  To put it simply, we have higher brain functions.  Yet it’s commonly thought that feelings come from the lower, more primitive part of our brains.

So we struggle.

I have struggled for months now to find my voice for this blog.  There is so much on the Internet about mental health and mindfulness and changing one’s thinking — and changing the brain — that the more I read, the more I want to know, and share.  But I have to use my own voice, my own opinions and experiences to communicate.  For the time being, I’m winging it.

What I do know, from my experiences both as a therapist and as a fellow human, is that many of us tend to be ruled by our emotions.  Even if we logically think, for instance, that a person is not good for us, we still feel for the person (or feel guilty, or any number of emotions) and maybe stay too long in a relationship.  I am not making a blanket statement about difficult relationships; just using that as an example.  Of course I believe it’s possible people can change — if they want to.

Not everyone enters counseling because they want to change. Sometimes they need to express those complicated feelings, sometimes they want to understand themselves better, and there are many more reasons. But in order to change, I think a person often needs to make an ongoing effort to understand the interplay between emotions and reason.

To illustrate, an illustration:

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Borrowed from Social Work Toolkit

As you can see, it is a cycle: feel and name the emotion, accept it, rationally look at it, try to understand what it means in a particular situation, and don’t judge yourself for the feeling.  We are human, we have feelings.  That’s a fact.  There is nothing wrong with having a so-called “bad” feeling; it’s what we do with it that matters.

Sounds simple, but it’s not.  It is a delicate task that takes time and effort and practice,  but it’s worth it to make a beginning.

And now I have made my beginning here.